Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry

Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry by Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib. Photo by Steve Weinik.

About the Project 

Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry was a temporary public art project showcased on Broad Street in Center City, Philadelphia, in October 2014. Mural Arts commissioned artists Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib to create a public art project in collaboration with youth at Sayre High School. The finished piece was a looped video projection on the seven-story south facade of the University of the Arts’ Anderson Building.

Having completed many large-scale gallery installations, Hironaka and Suib were interested in how their work could be interpreted as a mural and how to transition to the public realm. The artists’ unique creative practice fit right into Mural Arts’ commitment to expanding the definition of muralism in the 21st century. They wanted to investigate, with Mural Arts’ students, how the current decrepit industrial landscape can become a learning tool for understanding Philadelphia’s history as the “Workshop of the World.” Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry pulled inspiration from canonical artworks that progressively sought to elevate the status of industry workers. Lumiere’s pioneering film, Workers Leaving the Factory (1895), and Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals (1933) were two influential reference points. Through thoughtful construction and a nod to Lumiere and Rivera’s work, Hironaka and Suib succeeded in re-negotiating how murals can be created and implemented in the contemporary moment.

The artists led several workshops with students at Sayre High School that covered collaging images, Philadelphia’s industrial past, and the labor rights movement. They briefly studied manufacturing and labor protests local to West Philadelphia, the neighborhood where Sayre High School students live. Educating students about local treasures of Philadelphia industry allowed the students to better understand the current state of vacant factories in their neighborhoods. The artists invited students to be filmed in the final piece, acting as labor rights and women’s rights protesters from the 1940s and ’60s. They dressed in period costumes, created picket signs to protest, and used a green screen studio at the University of the Arts to create the footage. Hironaka and Suib collaged this footage with archival recordings of manufacturing.

The youth’s involvement in the piece, and their ability to contribute, solidified a paradigm new to Hironaka and Suib, but integral to Mural Arts’ practice: youth artists can effectively collaborate and create innovative public art. This project gave Hironaka and Suib the opportunity to push their own practice by inviting young people to directly participate in and inform their work. Simultaneously, the youth were able to learn new art-making techniques and how to make tangible connections between their lives and Philadelphia’s industrial past. Bringing the forgotten history of local industry to light allowed students to better comprehend textbook history through the built environment that surrounds them.